Nobody is more results oriented than a freelance investigator. Why? Because whether they like it or not, their jobs are on the line every day.
“Brian, you’re like a freelance evangelist,” he said, “telling anyone who will listen how great it is to be a freelance investigator.” At first, I was a little taken aback, but I quickly realized that it was true. In fact, I don’t mind the label at all. I like it.
Freelance work in the investigative world is thriving. During the past three years, I have served as a freelance investigator on some of the most interesting cases the investigative world had to offer. By “interesting” I mean cases that were front-page news in The New York Times and white-collar frauds so complex and unique that each was for me once-in-a-lifetime work.
I have had the privilege of working with some of the most brilliant investigative minds in the world. I’ve traveled to places I had never been and worked on some of the most fascinating cases. It’s been extremely rewarding—both personally and professionally.
It took some good timing, some dumb luck and a bit of skill, but the last three years have been a fantastic ride—all because I have embraced the role of freelance investigator.
In the Beginning…
I was fortunate in my timing. After eight years of working with an investigative firm, I started my own business in August 2009. My background was litigation support, due-diligence investigation and leave-no-stone-unturned background checks. That’s a pretty defined skill set. It’s a small world out there, so finding new business was just a matter of getting to the right people. I didn’t have a single client, so I did what I thought made the most sense: I called every investigator I knew to see if anyone needed help.
What do you know? I got some work. I spent my first few weeks helping a New York City investigative firm prep for a trial, which meant working a stretch of 13-hour days that ended with a 17-hour day on Labor Day.
Most people might cringe at the prospect of working 17 hours on a holiday, but I loved it. I loved the pressure, the people, the looming deadline and getting it all done—and done well. For me, it was the birth of a freelance evangelist.
Feast or Famine
In a typical situation, investigators are called upon 1) as a last resort or 2) to take care of some critical situation needing immediate attention. It has happened to every firm I have worked with or talked to.
Having a case or a project that produces months of steady income is a luxury rarely found in this business. Typically you go through days, weeks or months of more work than you know what to do with and then periods of complete silence followed by moments of mayhem—all without much or any warning.
Can you imagine trying to hire a staff to handle 1,000 hours of work one month and 200 hours of work the next? You would end up paying people to sit around or desperately trying to find something productive for them to do.
So what’s the answer? You get a steady network of freelance investigators to fill in the gaps, but not just anyone. Your network must be people who have specific skill sets and are best in class at what they do. There’s no sense in getting just anyone; get the best.
Business books will tell you to start a business that is repeatable, scalable and process-oriented so you can hire just about anyone.
In my line of work, there is a baseline of skill set needed, but there are very few straightforward cases. Every case I have worked as a freelance investigator has been completely different from any other. Each has required distinct skill sets from a variety of investigative angles, such as research, public records, forensic accounting, surveillance, security, international work or computer forensics.
To tackle these cases properly, you need experts in each of these fields.
As a freelancer you have a distinct advantage. You have little, if any, overhead; you have a specific high-quality skill that puts you in demand; and you can be available at a moment’s notice.
Ultimately, investigative firms are judged by their results—good, bad or indifferent. That’s just the way it is.
Nobody is more results oriented than a freelance investigator. Why? Because whether they like it or not, their jobs are on the line every day. If they don’t deliver what was promised or don’t bother returning emails or miss something they should have caught, that just may be the end of their freelance investigative career. Now, imagine if your employees worked on every case at that pace—as if it might be their last. Burnout, stress and a high turnover rate is what you would probably get. But for a freelancer, it’s par for the course, and you learn to deal with it.
Why Freelancers are Good For Business
From a business perspective using freelance investigators just makes sense. You don’t have employee overhead, you don’t need to hire people in every skill set and you don’t need to light a match under employees every few months after 100-hour weeks. Also you aren’t confined to a specific geographic area. You can use a Chicago-based investigator who is great at telephone interviewing, an Austin-based database expert or a New York-based investigator who is a whiz at finding assets.
What happens if they are not as good as you thought? Stop using them and find someone else.
If you had a not-so-good employee you wanted to let go, it wouldn’t be quite so easy.
Why Freelancing is Good for Investigators
I could name a million reasons why I love to be a freelancer. You have more freedom, you develop more skills, you control your own destiny, and you create a great network of contacts. In the end, you are judged every day for every billable hour. I love the pressure. I love doing the work.
So, yes, I am a freelance evangelist. I think it’s a model that more investigative agencies should and will embrace over time. Who’s with me?
What do you think? Do you use freelance investigators? What has been your experience working with freelance investigators? Do you think it’s a good business model?